AISLE SAY Florida

INVENTING VAN GOGH

by Steven Dietz
Directed by Brad Dalton
Asolo Repertory Theatre
FSU Center for the Performing Arts/Mertz Theatre
5555 N. Tamiami Tr., Sarasota, 941-351-8000, 800-361-8388
Through April 16, 2009 (in revolving repertory)

 Reviewed by Marie J. Kilker

 
An interesting idea for a play with invented and famous real characters: Have art authenticator Rene Bouchard force artist Patrick Stone to paint an as yet unfound and possibly non-existent Van Gogh self-portrait that expert Dr. Jonas Miller spent his life searching for. Have Stone, who thinks Van Gogh highly overrated, visited by the artist as he works on the forgery. Further, clearly show parallels between Patrick and Paul Gauguin (who also felt Van GoghŐs work came up short) as well as PatrickŐs past lover Hallie, daughter of his teacher Dr. Miller, and Dr. Paul GachetŐs daughter Marguerite. (SheŐs the one Van Gogh sent his ear to before dying. Van Gogh painted both Gachets.)
 
Problem: In avoiding such old fashioned but clear plotting as a linear story with flashbacks, modernist Steven Dietz knits past and present in a manner sometimes difficult to understand. Adding to the structural confusion, actors double in the roles of both doctors, both women, and of the devious French art ŇexpertÓ and the opinionated French artist. The play thus seems contrived artistically, perhaps even economically motivated in these days of small casts.  There are more than enough mysteries in the plot itself, especially concerning father-daughter-lover relationships and causes of deaths. 
 
Director Brad DaltonŐs blocking doesnŐt help clarify goings-on. He either tends to bunch characters together down center or has the dead Dr. Miller narrating directly to the audience, weaving in and out of the varying times and scenes of action. The players  often talk more toward the rear than front, except for David BreitbarthŐs Gauguin, who hangs out (not just figuratively) on one side, usually snarling. His Rene Bouchard, by the way, is distinguished by wearing black and speaking with what seems to be an Anglo accent. Lighting of the basic studio scenic design is sometimes so dark that it fosters sleepiness. Johann StegmeirŐs costumes seem right, usually copied from Van GoghŐs paintings for the characters in Auvers. My companion was baffled about Hallie being the only one who changes clothes in her separate appearances. Gangly Heather KelleyŐs stark outfits certainly set Hallie apart from the colorfully dressed, more filled-out Marguerite whom she also plays.
 
Jason Peck acquits himself well as angry young painter Patrick but subtly conveys changes in attitude. James Leaming tends to upstage others in his initial appearances as Dr. Miller, though heŐs quite a stereotyped obsessed professor. Leaming also has little chance to develop Dr. Gachet other than to look like his portrait. Bearing true resemblance to Van Gogh, Dan Donohue establishes himself as the star. His most memorable turn has him painting during darkest night in his hat actually brimming with lighted candles. He canŐt avoid being melodramatic, though, expiring surrounded by others and in an abstract setting totally unlike the real stark, close, dark room where Van Gogh suffered into lonely death. It resembles a classic deposition painting, not a more fitting impressionistic or expressionistic one.
 
Samples of Van Gogh paintings are displayed prominently enough to reveal that theyŐre not too great reproductions. ItŐs curious that his painting of the field where he was found fatally wounded is referred to but not shown, more so since itŐs opposite the cemetery where the artist and his brother Theo are buried.  Added curiosity: a fiery projection, near the conclusion, of an explosive abstract painting, mainly orange.  Invented Van Gogh? Doubtful, for thereŐs an orange-cast self-portrait too. Too bad none of Peter StoneŐs own work gets displayed. Intense Peck certainly seems up to have been painting one for him, at least for an entry into DietzŐs mixed-quality exhibition.
 
Chris Ostrum designed lighting; Matthew Parker, sound. Stage Manager for the 2 hr. production is Libby Mickle.

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